How do we learn to garden? Those of us who write about the subject do our best to give useful information, just as favorite authors have done for us. We hope our pages end up dog-eared and mud-smeared, sharing shelf space not with Dickens and Proust but with pruners, and twine.
Even then, we help at a distance. People learn the most from their own gardens — from the way their plants respond to their ministrations, or from a mentor who instills in them a desire to grow plants well.
The lucky people are those who learn at a parent or grandparent’s grimy knee. Failing that, the best education might come from neighborhood experts who allow you to work alongside them. Few will let you choose your own syllabus. They won’t stop to give a discourse on soil structure if it’s the last day they can sow fall lettuce. But you can pick up plenty of hands-on technique in their company.
“That’s a broccoli plant,” your guide will say before disappearing down the row. “Remove everything from this bed that is not broccoli.” You’ll get acquainted with many weeds and their habits before you’re done.
Although some gardeners pride themselves on their potions and formulas, most work instinctively, like a cook who thinks recipes are for nerds. They’ll work in “enough” lime, and “plenty” of compost. Don’t mistake this for casualness. I’m reminded of the French film “Jean de Florette,” in which old Monsieur Soubeyran tastes his neighbor’s soil, and envy clouds his face. (Old-timers used to gauge soil pH with their tongues.).
Veteran gardeners size up a plot in an instant. The look of the plants tells whether the soil is fertile, “in good heart,” as the old phrase goes. You may not know how to unlock the knowledge of these mentors, but try to think up good questions, and observe what they do.
When I was very young I would watch my Louisiana grandmother pick and arrange flowers for church every Sunday, then try to imitate her, strewing the table and floor with asparagus fern and roses. Her bouquets seemed charmingly tossed together, but it took a lot of skill and instinct to make them that way — and a surer hand than mine.
I could see that my mother had learned the knack over the years, so I kept at it.
Years later, I worked for a nurseryman named Lee Bristol who achieved the same natural look when he pruned shrubs, heading the twigs back at varying lengths so that they appeared to have grown to just that shape. Lee also showed me to how to dig and transplant shrubs and trees, carving a root ball “as if it were as fragile as butter” to keep the soil mass from breaking apart. His square compost piles were so carefully stacked that they were like layer cakes, needing no framework to support them.
In spring he would dig a little compost out at the base, sift it, and start seeds in it. No sterilizing, no soil-less mix. The lettuce transplants it produced were the healthiest I’d ever seen.
Going to work for a talented nurseryman or farmer can be transformative. You might be poorly paid, but you’ll learn how to garden well and efficiently, because your boss will not want you to waste time. This is one of the biggest differences between a novice and a seasoned gardener. Whether schooled or self-taught, you eventually learn the rhythms that make work flow.
Take weeding, for example. It’s only logical to loosen the weeds with a tool in one hand and pull them out with the other, keeping a bucket right next to the pulling hand so it won’t have to travel far to deposit the weeds. The same goes for harvesting — two hands at work, close to the bucket.
Some people catch on slowly. We had an intern at our farm, a sweet and lovely young woman who never quite found that groove. She would sever one spinach leaf at a time, languidly reaching over to her bucket and dropping it in, while everybody else was having spinach-harvest races, trying to be top spinach dog. It was so painful to watch her that we would avert our eyes if we walked by.
As her summer’s stint neared an end I told my husband “You simply can’t let her leave thinking that what she did was work.” So he went and crouched next to her and said, “Here, I’ll show you a neat little trick”. Keeping his hands close together he speedily cut leaf after leaf, cupping them in his left palm, then dropping the handful into the bucket inches away. She smiled serenely at him and said, “But I’m in no hurry.”
I like to think that someday she will have three kids, a dinner party looming, and five minutes in which to pick a spinach salad. And she will remember how.